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Spining-Whels-art - 5/19/13


"Are Spinning Wheels Period?" by Maistreas Siobhan nic Dhuinnshleibhe, O.L.


NOTE: See also the files: spinning-msg, silk-msg, velvet-msg, textiles-msg, weaving-msg, hemp-cloth-msg, linen-msg, medieval-tech-msg.





This article was submitted to me by the author for inclusion in this set of files, called Stefan's Florilegium.


These files are available on the Internet at: http://www.florilegium.org


Copyright to the contents of this file remains with the author or translator.


While the author will likely give permission for this work to be reprinted in SCA type publications, please check with the author first or check for any permissions granted at the end of this file.


Thank you,

Mark S. Harris...AKA:..Stefan li Rous

stefan at florilegium.org



You can find more work by this author on her website at: http://webpages.charter.net/siospins/


Are Spinning Wheels Period?

by Maistreas Siobhan nic Dhuinnshleibhe, O.L.


There are many reasons why there is a lack of good documentation for spinning wheels in earlier periods. When it first evolved as a useful spinning tool, it may have been kept as a sort of industrial secret from the competition, as were many of the tools and techniques of textile technology throughout the ages. It also may have been a bit intimidating to spinners – people may have been reluctant to give up a time-honored tradition and tool that they were familiar with in favor of some 'new-fangled device' and new techniques in it's operation.


Further, when some people may have been persuaded to try the new wheel, it may have become such an established tool of the trade in everyday life that it was not an exciting enough subject for writers and artists to focus on. Indeed, sometimes the only evidence we have to go on are legal precedents passed to try to stop or promote an activity involving spinning wheels or spindles. As Diderot in his "Encyclopedie" of 1756 says, (translation from the French) "The spinning wheel is a machine which appears to us simple and which, seen everywhere, does not for an instant hold our attention, but which is none the less ingenious for that." (Baines, 69)


There is a great deal of debate as to the exact date and place of origin for the spinning wheel. Unfortunately, there are no surviving examples of early medieval spinning wheels, so one must look to artwork and historical records for evidence of their existence. Many consider India to be the birthplace of the spinning wheel, where it was used to spin cotton. In her book Spinning Wheels, Spinners & Spinning, Patricia Baines quotes Professor Irfan Habib of the Aligarh Muslim University as saying that there is no term in Sanskrit for "spinning wheel". The word "charkah" used in India and Nepal is actually a Persian word and that spinning wheels were used in Persia in 1257. (45)


Joseph Needham in his book Science & Civilization in China claims that the oldest representation of a spinning wheel is in a painting by Chien Hsuan circa 1270 that shows a mother sitting at a spindle wheel, spinning and saying goodbye to her son. However, in the Ciba Review, The Spinning Wheel, it states that the spindle wheel dates between 500-1000 CE, so it would seem reasonable that Hsuan's picture from 1270 could show a piece of equipment that had been in use within the culture for some time.


The Chinese wheels, as well as the Indian styles known as charkhas, were not rimed wheels at all – they had a string running through holes in the tips of the spokes connecting them in a zig-zag fashion, thus supporting the drive band.



The drive band was connected to a spindle turned on its side where the whorl might be, and powered by a hand crank. The spinner would turn the hand crank with one hand and spin off of the end of the spindle with the other hand – thus the term "spindle wheel."


Wheels made up of two series of spokes enclosed by a wooden hoop, where a wide strip of ribbon or fabric connects the hoops to form the drive band surface. While these rimless spindle wheels were used in Greece, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Italy and Switzerland, they rarely appear in Western Europe, even as far back as the 13th Century. It is surprising, as trade routes of the time went from Italy and Germany to Austria and Switzerland, or even France to Flanders and then by sea routes to England and other countries further north.



The earliest written record mentioning spinning wheels in Europe comes from Speyer, Germany, in 1298 that forbids wheel-spun yarn from being used as warp threads in weaving. (It should be noted that it takes little twist on a spindle wheel to form a nice, soft thread, but it takes a lot of extra twist to make a stronger yarn. The fact that a law had to be passed forbidding this practice is evidence proving that spinning on a wheel was an established method at this time – unfortunately, it does not shed any light onto the type of wheel used or the fiber involved in the process.


The first pictorial records of spinning wheels in Europe are from the early 14th century in an illustrated manuscript of the Decretals of Gregory IX that was written in Italy and illustrated in England. (placing it within 50 years of Hsuan's painting). The pictures in the Decretals show multiple wheels and images of women both combing and carding. In each miniature the wheel is depicted the same – a hoop-rimmed wheel supported between two uprights.



The other important pictorial evidence comes from the Luttrell Psalter written and illustrated in East Anglia in 1310. Commissioned by Luttrell of Irnham in Lincolnshire, this miniature depicts a larger wheel than the one pictured in the Decretals with a hoop rim and what appears to be a crossed drive band. Though the legs are shorter, its wheel is taller than the spinner.) It should be noted that drop-spindles were still in use at this time, as the earlier illustration from the Luttrell Psalter showed a woman feeding livestock with the drop-spindle and distaff under her arm.



These two bits of pictorial evidence show that, at least in Britain, wheels with wooden rims were used in the standing position and turned by hand or with a stick to catch the spokes of the wheel instead of employing a hand crank. The spinners use a long draw to spin, and the appearance of both rolags and combs or cards indicates that these wheels were used to spin wool, not linen or cotton.


Subsequent pictures and engravings show these large, hooped wheels were used in the woolen industry throughout Europe. While there are differences in wheel size and style, all of these wheels use straw as a bearing in the maidens for the spindle. According to Baines, it was thought that the siliceous surface of straw allowed the spindle to move more freely with less friction in the maidens, allowing for smoother spinning. Leather was also used, and some wheels even employed tensioning devices.



Spindle wheels continued in use over the world into the modern era. The wheel evolved and was improved upon even after the development of other styles. In some areas of the world, the wheel continues to be the favored wheel for certain shorter fibers.


The invention of the bobbin-flyer assembly was another technological innovation in spinning. The flyer is a U-shaped piece of wood or metal attached to the spindle that winds the spun yarn around a bobbin. Once the bobbin is full, it can be removed and replaced with an empty one, thus allowing the spinner to continue on without taking the time to unwind all the yarn from a full spindle in order to resume spinning.



Unfortunately, the time and place origins of this technological development are just as uncertain as that of the spindle wheel itself. This development may have resulted from the need for a machine that could spin the longer-staple wools and flax into yarn strong enough for warp threads in a more efficient manner than the old reliable spindle and distaff. This may have happened in textile production centers themselves, and may have in fact been inspired by silk- throwing machines.


Earliest silk twisting machines resembled variations of a spinning wheel. Traditional spindle wheels were also used to twist silk thread into plied yarns. The machinery that developed by the 13th Century may have inspired the development of our flyer/bobbin mechanism with which we are familiar.



Silk cocoons can be boiled to loosen the natural gum that holds it together and then the monofilament thread can be unwound. A silk thrower is a machine designed to take several strands of reeled silk and spin these together to make a thicker, stronger yarn. Lucca, Italy was an early center of silk reeling and throwing, but closely guarded the secrets of their equipment until an exile named Borghesano set up a water-driven throwing mill in Bologna in 1272. Other exiles from the industry introduced similar machines into Venice and Florence during the 14th century, but information about throwing mills was not readily available until 1607 when Vittori Zonca published a book on the subject (Baines 82). Spindle wheels were used to wind the silk strands to be reeled onto a single bobbin. The bobbin was then placed onto a machine with an S-shaped flyer that twisted the strands together as they left the bobbin then they were wound onto the rotating reel above, with the flyer and the reel moving slower that the spindle and bobbin. The silk industry continued to improve the machines needed to reel and ply the silk. The builders, experimenters and the developers of the flyer/bobbin wheel as we know it went off in another direction . . .


Leonardo da Vinci was one of the pioneers who worked on trying to improve the mechanisms of the spindle wheel. A collection of papers called the "Codex Atlanticus" from 1490 includes his notes and drawings on mechanisms for spinning, twisting and winding yarn. As da Vinci often did, he made drawings of his ideas, but it is not known if a prototype of his machine was ever built in his lifetime. Several men around Europe were probably working on the same theories. He was not creating a new invention, but rather experimenting with an existing mechanism since the earliest known picture of a bobbin-flyer wheel appears in the Waldburg family's "Mittelalterliches Hausbuch", circa 1475-80, from southern Germany.



This wheel has a relatively small drive wheel with a handcrank that powers the bobbin and flyer. This wheel also includes a tensioning device and an ornate bench cavity that might have been used to store fiber or other equipment. Almost 50 years later, a similar spinning wheel appears in the 1524 Glockendon Bible that was illustrated in Nuremburg, Germany. (Baines, 85). Another similar wheel also appears in an early 16th century calendar from Strasbourg with a woman spinning from a distaff with her left hand.



Prior to the discovery of the picture from the Mittlealterliches Hausbuch, the inventor of the flyer wheel was often attributed to a citizen of Brunswick in lower Saxony named Meister Jurgen. He is connected to spinning wheel references in many ways from his place of origin by notes made in church registers after his death.


Historians are still uncertain whether or not he actually invented the wheel, or if in their search to find an inventor they seized upon Jurgen because of his spinning connections. Regardless of the reason, the expression "Saxony" or "Saxon" is still used to describe any horizontal flyer wheel, no matter if it is treadle or hand-powered.


The most famous painting of a 16th century spinner is the 1529 portrait of Anna Codde, painted by Maerton van Heemskerck.



It shows the spinner behind her small, wide-rimmed drive wheel turned by hand and a bobbin-flyer assembly.


Another engraving portraying a bobbin/flyer wheel is this engraving is of "a young woman spinning, 1513", based on another painting by Maerten van Heemskerck.



Again we see how an artist adjusts reality for the picture. Notice that the flyer is facing away from the spinner – it would be nearly impossible to spin with the wheel in this position.


The next innovation in spinning wheel technology was the replacement of the hand crank or manually turning the drive wheel by the addition of a foot pedal. This pedal, called a treadle, does not appear in any exact historical records or images prior to the 17th century. The earliest actual surviving spinning wheel with a treadle is illustrated in the booklet "Woole Spinnen am Handspinrad" by J. Colemnite dating to 1604. During this time there are several pictures showing spinners using two hands to spin. Since they were using both hands on the fiber instead of just one, it might be inferred that a treadle was in use, although it was not visible in the image. Then again, since artists who have an eye for composition might paint what looks good instead of what is accurate, it may have in fact been a hand-powered wheel – without seeing the treadle, we cannot be sure.



As the spinning wheel with flyer/bobbin and treadle moved across Europe, each craftsman changed, improved and made his own the style of the wheel. Some changes were big – the placement of the wheel and the size of the wheel. The colors, stains or paints used to decorate the wheel were similar to what people may have used on their other furniture. These wheels moved with the linen industry, for they were developed and evolved quickly for the spinning of flax.



One odd creation that the addition of the treadle allowed was for the creation of a two-handed spinning wheel, as shown in Thomas Firmin's illustration of 1681. It has 2 bobbin-flyer assemblies driven with one drive band and a foot treadle so that each hand can spin a separate thread. It was not a common fixture save in the flax centers of such countries as Ireland, Scotland and Holland until well into the 18th century. Firmin mentions that children of 7 or 8 years old could contribute to their upkeep from the money earned by spinning, and that it also served as a means for the poor to earn more money by speeding up their production. These wheels never caught on for common use, for something else was on the horizon. The Industrial Revolution was about to erupt.



Copyright 2013 by Heather McCloy <siospins at charter.net>. Permission is granted for republication in SCA-related publications, provided the author is credited.  Addresses change, but a reasonable attempt should be made to ensure that the author is notified of the publication and if possible receives a copy.


If this article is reprinted in a publication, please place a notice in the publication that you found this article in the Florilegium. I would also appreciate an email to myself, so that I can track which articles are being reprinted. Thanks. -Stefan.


<the end>

Formatting copyright © Mark S. Harris (THLord Stefan li Rous).
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Comments to the Editor: stefan at florilegium.org